An Evening of String Quartets

Katherine McLin, violin
Jennifer Ross, violin
Mary Harris, viola
Marc Moskovitz, cello

Program notes

To better appreciate the diverse nature of the works on this afternoon’s program, some perspective on the development of the string quartet as a musical genre might be in order. We don’t know exactly when the first string quartet was composed, but the genre probably developed out of a casual collection of string instruments such as those used to serenade individuals or parties during various 17th century settings. For such events, whether an out-of-doors serenade or a drawing room performance for the nobility, it was less important which particular instruments were on hand, so long as there were players enough to cover all the parts. It was in the hands of Joseph Haydn that the concept of the string quartet, with its current representation of two violins, viola and cello, was truly developed. Haydn, along with Mozart, composers who exchanged ideas and even played quartets together when the opportunity presented itself, understood how these four instruments (two soprano, one middle voice, and a bass voice to ground the harmony) provided the perfect means to manage the operation: four separate but equal players engaging in a musical dialogue (even if the violins, at least in the first years of the genre’s development, did the majority of the talking!). By the time Beethoven began contributing to the genre, which he did with his set of Op. 18 quartets, all the instruments had begun to play a more equitable role. From this point on, the string quartet would provide every composer that followed the greatest of musical challenges (four and only four): because of its limitations and expressive potential, it was with the string quartet that the full measure of a composer’s ability was truly put to the test and often where the most profound results were to be found.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Contrapunctus I from Art of the Fugue
As it so happens, the first work on today’s program was not composed for string quartet at all. Indeed, the ensemble had not even been “created” when Bach, nearing the end of his life, set about demonstrating all the possibilities for fugal composition. While Bach composed for nearly every musical genre save opera, it was in the world of counterpoint (note against note) where his true genius thrived—not only has Bach’s contrapuntal know how never been surpassed but his achievements seem beyond what the human mind is even capable. In the final decade of his life, Bach set about “cataloguing” the various ways fugues could be written (that is, one voice begins with a subject which is then imitated in other voices while the previous voices then carry on with their own material). Bach never finished the project and in fact his son, CPE Bach, said that he died at the point where his final fugue broke off. Whether or not matters were as CPE would lead us to believe, J.S.’s compilation of fourteen fugues and four canons, remains the gold standard of fugal composition. Each study is known as a “contrapunctus,” and today you will hear the first of the fourteen. Because the instrumentation for the work was never specified, the Art of the Fugue has been taken up by any number of ensembles, including string quartet. Try to follow the contrapuntal subject as it is introduced by the violin and then taken up by the others. Whether or not intended for such an ensemble, it is a true musical discussion and as such wholly in the spirit of the group.


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): String Quartet in B flat, Op. 18 No. 6
It was with his set of six quartets, Op. 18, that Beethoven first admitted to truly understanding how to write for quartet of strings. These were composed between 1798-1800 to fulfill a commission by one of his most active patrons, Prince Maximillian Lobkowitz, and their turn-of-the-century gestation should suggest that these were no longer strictly “classical” compositions. Their history tells us all we need to know about Beethoven, his compositional method and what the string quartet meant to him. After sending an early version of the score to a friend, he then thought better of it and requested that the manuscript be shown to no one. Beethoven then set about revising, and ultimately altered, in one way or another, nearly every bar of the original, until he got it right. Beethoven had learned a great deal about quartet writing from Haydn and Mozart but he had even more to say about textures, dynamics, thematic development and formal textures. When he finally sent the finished product to his publisher, in 1801, Beethoven had firmly established his place alongside his Viennese predecessors as master of the genre.

The Quartet in B-flat, Op. 18 No. 6, stands out on account of the profound nature of the finale, (with its “Malinconia” nickname). The first three movements of the work are rather traditional by way of their architecture and pacing (fast-slow-minuet/scherzo-fast). The opening Allegro con brio is pretty standard sonata-form fare, with its two contrasting themes and unfolding of ideas. Arguably the most important element here is Beethoven’s developmental procedure—in other words, how he breaks down and builds upon his thematic material, concepts no doubt gleaned from Haydn but which Beethoven took to another level. Indeed, Kerman, the great Beethoven scholar, writes about this movement’s development beginning “to crackle in real Beethovenian fashion.” The Adagio again looks backward rather than forward, the variants of its theme crafted as a Rococo ornamentation. It is with the Scherzo that we really see Beethoven being Beethoven, upping the ante of the traditional minuet with increased speed (scherzos, rather than minuets, would now become a typical Beethoven trademark in both his string quartets and symphonies), the misplaced rhythms and cross rhythms keeping the sense of the strong beat off balance. Scherzo means “joke” in Italian and Beethoven doesn’t get much more humorous than this.

But the fourth movement is the quartet’s real centerpiece, an emotional juggernaut that from the very first page heralds an unusual Beethovenian instruction: “Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla più gran delicatezza” (“This piece is to be played with the greatest delicacy”). While any of the prior movements might perhaps been conceived of by an earlier composer, in no way could this finale have flowed from the mind and pen of anyone but Beethoven, a man laying bare his own emotional agenda: whether or not we regard the opening Adagio as more mysterious than “melancholy”, we certainly gain insight into the true Beethoven, his moods of depression and combative temper. Note both his harmonies, which are already pushing well into the Romantic age, and his obsession with tightly-knit motives, one of which will be quoted by our next composer). How astounding, then, that Beethoven counters his emotional introduction with a German country dance that skips along as if without a care in the world! But Beethoven is not finished with the opening strains of the Adagio and they return twice more before the quicksilver coda drives this raucous movement to its brilliant conclusion.


Caroline Shaw (b. 1982): Blueprint
Though the genesis of Caroline Shaw’s Blueprint sprang from Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 6, one need not know the earlier work to appreciate the sophistication of Shaw’s approach. Blueprint, a single-movement composition from 2016, reveals its composer’s rapid-fire style, building on short often unrelated ideas. Here they are gently woven together and then slam into one another for maximum effect. As such, quoting from Beethoven seems a perfect fit, given the earlier composer’s penchant for exploiting short, terse motives for their dramatic potential.

Shaw, the youngest musical recipient of the Pulitzer Prize (2013), is in great demand as a composer, with a growing list of commissions from names like Dawn Upshaw, Renée Fleming, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Dover Quartet, Brooklyn Rider and the Baltimore Symphony, to name but a few. As a violinist and violist, Shaw got to know Beethoven’s Op. 18 quartets intimately, and like the masters of the medium, writes for the foursome as a dialogue. In Blueprint, we are immediately pulled into her world of kaleidoscopic ideas, expectation and fluidity. This seven-minute showpiece explores a wealth of colors and textures, with quickly shifting harmonies that will move you through centuries before you can say “Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla più gran delicatezza.” Having just heard the Beethoven, you will note the Malinconia quotations. In Shaw’s hand, Beethoven’s music seems to gain new meaning as she draws directly from the string quartet’s rich tradition, proving that after 250 years, the medium is far from exhausted.


Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): String Quartet in F Major
Maurice Ravel was 28 when he wrote his one and only string quartet, roughly the same age as Beethoven when the latter wrote his set of six Op. 18’s. But while Beethoven was an established composer by the time he set to work on his quartets, Ravel was still a student, at least in the sense that he was auditing composition classes at the Paris Conservatoire with Gabriel Fauré (to whom his F Major Quartet is dedicated). While Ravel may have attempted to avoid the trappings of Wagnerian harmonies that had dominated much of Western European music for the last half century or so, he was not immune to outside influences. Certainly, the string quartet of Debussy from a decade earlier, which Ravel knew intimately, was in his ear, while we also note that his quartet’s architectural plan draws on a traditional four-movement scheme. What is more, Ravel’s opening Allegro is built of a clear-cut sonata form, the same structure Mozart would have used for one of his opening movements (Ravel was indeed very fond of Mozart’s music). To understand this, listen for the two themes Ravel presents, the “motto” theme with which the work opens and the ethereal secondary idea presented in octaves by the violin and viola—two clear-cut melodies whose subsequent development and recapitulation mark a standard classical approach.

These traditional principles aside, Ravel’s composition signals a revolution was taking place, albeit subtly. Not only does his opening theme give way to many of the other melodies found throughout the score but the colors and effects Ravel unveils, whether the pizzicato textures of the Assez vif (which juxtaposes two ideas and two meters simultaneously), the abundance of ideas comprising the Très Lent, which unfolds as a wholly unique structure, the explosive energy and off-balance meter (5/8) of the closing Vif et agité, or the experimental harmonies found throughout the work, all point very much toward the future, not the past, and herald a major new composer having arrived on the scene.

Rarely are such revolutionary works immediately embraced, and this work’s 1904 premiere was no exception. The critics were divided, some suggesting that Ravel return to his writing desk for revisions. Even his teacher Fauré was on the fence about his student’s latest offering, and inevitably the quartet was compared to Debussy’s earlier work. Yet to his credit, the elder French musical statesman confided to his younger colleague, “In the name of the gods of music, and in mine, do not touch a single note of what you have written in your quartet.” Fortunately Ravel heeded Debussy’s advice and to good effect—within a decade the work had firmly secured its place in the repertoire and is now performed with regularity by professional ensembles the world over.

© Marc Moskovitz